Consultant skill 1: Building better relationships by asking [not telling]

As kids we have learned that the best way to impress and to entertain is by telling. We compete against our peers by telling the most interesting fact, the most outrageous story, the best joke. We have learned that we win by telling and listen mainly for a pause to jump in. Stephen Potter called this cultural ‘gamesmanship’ and ‘one-upmanship’ in the 50s.

Similarly, some consultants take it for granted that telling is more valued than asking. They think that asking is revealing ignorance or weakness. As a consultant we are supposed to know what to do, or at least appear to know.

Where time is scarce, we want to be productive and efficient. Asking open questions, where we genuinely don't control the answer, may feel risky. But this is a misconception, being on the wrong track is much riskier. 

Today, as consultants we are entrusted with more technologically complex challenges. Our teams and customers are more culturally diverse. Both make the building of relationships and truly understanding the matter at hand the most essential consultant skill.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood ”

— Stephen Covey

Companies that have created a culture of curiosity see fantastic results.
See Design Value Index Results 

My aim for this article is to show how we can use ‘asking’ to build better relationships within our teams and with our stakeholders.

Trusting relationships

When I ask open questions and listen with a curious mind I am handing control to the other person. I show I trust them not to ridicule my effort. This openness might invite them to trust me too. It is an invitation to be more personal, appear as a whole human being, not just in my function.

“It is not enough to say ‘I will be asking instead of telling’. We want to be conscious that even by asking questions we can take control of the flow and must consider if this is desirable in this situation. Rhetorical questions or leading questions are really a form of telling. Instead, I want to inquire in a way that will best discover what is really on the other person’s mind.”

— Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiry

By building on a relationship of mutual trust we can be more effective and intentional with our questions. All people involved will participate more actively and openly and enjoy the collaboration more. 

Shake the mental model by asking

In some cases, like coaching or consulting, it might be appropriate to open and influence the other’s mental model by asking a challenging question or a form of provocation.

You will need a strong relationship, earned through sincere asking and listening before this will be accepted by the other person. We need to build a lot of trust before we can take a lead and challenge our client. This kind of humbleness and patience is often missing in consultant profiles. With all this in place, a well-intended ‘What's stopping you?’, ‘What would happen if you did/didn’t?’ may move mountains in the client’s head.

Your questions may invert existing beliefs, challenge assumptions, or help the other person to recognise their self-efficacy, the realisation that they can influence most situation in a project, their career or their life.

Reset and align the conversation

If you experience resistance, the other person defends why they aren’t feeling or doing what you are proposing, you might have missed a piece in the inquiry or you have gone too far, too fast. The client does not trust to go with you, yet.   

Instead of continuing with the content of the conversation, you can focus on the conversation itself. This is not done very often outside of coaching, so it might feel a bit odd, or too personal. It allows all to restate the definition of your relationship and the expectation for a successful project outcome.

Become more intentional with your questions

A humble form of inquiry is perhaps not the fastest, but the most honest and durable way to building great relationships. Questions built on the foundations of a trusting relationship can achieve amazing outcomes. Watch it work.

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Other posts in the consultant skills series:

Consultant skill 1: Building better relationships by asking [not telling]

Consultant skill 2: A more intentional inquiry

Consultant skill 3: Inspire divergent thinking by asking

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